“Today I see myself as a composite individual” – 5in10 with Venugopal Maddipati
Venugopal Maddipati holds a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota and is Assistant Professor at the School of Design at Ambedkar University, Delhi. He is currently working on his monograph titled „Architecture as Weak Thought: Gandhi, Wardha and Presentism in Colonial and Post Colonial India“. This monograph, which comes out of Venugopal’s post-Ph.D. field-work and archival research, will explore the intersections, over the course of the twentieth century, between Gandhism, architecture and contemporaneity in the district of Wardha in Central India. He is currently a Fellow of Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices at the Forum Transregionale Studien.
What was intriguing to you when you were a child? What is it that you always wanted to know about the world?
I grew up in Delhi, in a house of science. My mother is a botanist and also a zoologist. So I spent a considerable amount of time in a small museum that she used to curate. I would help my mother prepare herbaria and watch ants and birds for hours. I was initially never fond of snakes – but I did slowly learn to appreciate them in a purely scientific way. My fascination with the natural sciences began in this period. My mother, who is also a gardener, once brought home a book on Marianne North’s botanical paintings. I was about 13 at the time and I was painting, mostly with poster colours. I initially tried imitating North’s style. I was very unsuccessful. And as a response to my own failure, I impulsively took up fantasy art and water colours and began painting what I thought were or what I certainly wished at the time would be seen as mystical wooded worlds. So I imagine that by the time I was 19, deep within me, there was perhaps a question: Is the world more fantastic than it appears in a naturalistic sense? I certainly may not have articulated the question in this fashion at the time, though. My neighbor at the time, a sociologist: Professor Jeet Uberoi, would often visit my house. He would pass through my mother’s garden, and would come inside and mention in a mischievous way that while my mother was a gardener, I was trying too hard, in my paintings, to be an enchanted gardener. His humorous remark did come back to me many years later. I realize that my desire to stay close to the idea of an enchanted world still remains within me, as a painter. Although, as a writer and architectural historian, I strictly adhere to methodological naturalism.
How would you explain your current research to a stranger in an elevator?
I work on themes related to Ecology and Architecture. In particular, I am curious about the theme of latency in Twentieth Century South Asian architecture. By latency I am referring to the architectural historian Dalibor Vesely’s conception of latent worlds or what he called pre-reflective experiences, or the natural world as a silent background for architecture. As you can see, this emphasis on the latency of environmental frames does stem from my childhood interest in naturalism. On the one hand I seek to draw out this silent, latent background frame or what one can even call a background environmental frame for architecture, into the foreground, particularly in the context of an architecture related to the Indian politician Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. On the other hand, I also examine how this silent, latent world, is itself constituted through an explicit exclusion or determinate negation of the foreground in Gandhian thinking. In that sense, my current research emphasizes a continual movement between what one can call a backdrop of natural or environmental histories, or narratives related to deep ecology, and a foreground of human histories. As I see it, neither can be imagined without the other.
Which stations of your academic journey were extremely formative to you?
There have been many formative experiences. My initial training as an architect in India instilled within me a deep sense of wonderment, practicality and pragmatism. In addition, I recognize failure as a way unto itself. Failure makes one expand one’s horizons. Obviously this is not apparent as one goes through failure. When there is failure, at that time, in that moment, one can be deeply dejected and despondent. However, it helps in such moments to have a guide or a teacher, to help oneself see more than one can immediately discern. In this matter, I had the good fortune of having a very caring teacher in Delhi, a Graphic Designer: Bindia Thapar. Bindia encouraged me to keep my eyes open and to stay rooted in painting. In addition, my training in the American system as a PhD. Candidate, under the guidance of Professor Catherine Asher, opened so many doors of experience, particularly in the field of Islamic Art. Professor Asher allowed me to indulge myself, and encouraged me to read widely, beyond my own subject, that is, Art History. When I returned to India in 2011 after finishing my PhD. at the University of Minnesota and joined the Center for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi, I began on a new journey. I assimilated entirely new experiences in familiar territory, and compared them with my memories of the worlds I had left behind. So today I see myself as a composite individual, informed by all of these diverse experiences, and also deeply in debt to so many extraordinary teachers and individuals I have met over the course of my journeys.
How is it to do research in Germany?
Germany has been fantastic. Berlin, for instance, is such a vibrant and permissive city. And one is mostly torn between engaging with the city itself, and making use of the time that one has at one’s disposal to write, by staying indoors. More than anything else, however, it is the peer group at the Forum Transregionale Studien that has contributed to my work. Learning from the life experiences of others, and drawing on their scholarship, one understands oneself and one’s work far more critically. Some of the sharpest and most insightful comments on my engagement with architectural history, for instance, have come over the course of very intensive exchanges with my colleagues. It makes one want to move beyond oneself. I also realize that many of my ideas had begun to harden, over time. And it helps to be reminded that one has to loosen up and stay open to the suggestions of others. Certainly, my being in Berlin was a step in that direction. One has to become a little unsettled, as a researcher, to actually make progress with research.
If you had one wish, what would you wish for the further development of your subject?
One of the harder challenges at this time is to think through questions related to situating one’s own work in architectural history in a wider context. There is always the latent tendency to engage in presentism, or to translate one’s ability to historicize, in the limiting terms and criteria of one’s own present. One is never entirely at a remove from the metaphysics of the present. And yet, it is also important to simultaneously be mindful of the past and its unavailability to the metaphysics of the present. And so there is a paradox, a conundrum, between two responsibilities that press on us, that is, between the call to situate one’s research in the present on the one hand, and the call to not become entirely consumed by the present on the other hand. And this paradox becomes a particularly acute problem in the context of an increasing demand today, in a time of considerable environmental distress, to demonstrably bring together both: natural histories and human histories. So I imagine that in my work in the field of architectural history, I am still struggling to identify which of these concerns must assume centrality. Sometimes, though, I find that my students help me in this matter. As designers, they are rather perceptive. While listening to them one realizes, for instance, that one’s own conception of the present, is also somewhat antiquated. So in keeping with such difficult and fragmented questions related to the present that emerge in conversations with students, then, I imagine my work in architectural history must, in some form, engage with the theme of presentism itself in the future.
Citation: Venugopal Maddipati, “Today I see myself as a composite individual” – 5in10 with Venugopal Maddipati, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 01.08.2017, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/6390